By Rick Steves
Some things that seem too good to be true...actually are true. If you're traveling with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, you can make calls over the Internet to another wireless device, anywhere in the world, for free. (Or you can pay a few cents to call from your device to a telephone.) Officially dubbed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Internet calling can save you a ton of money. Simply put, this is the cheapest way to stay in touch with folks back home while you're on the road.
The major providers are Skype (also available as a smartphone app), Google Talk, and FaceTime (preloaded on most Apple devices). Other variations include Rebtel, which can also be used in combination with mobile minutes (not just Wi-Fi or 3G) and Viber.
To get started, visit the service's website to download the free application and register. Once you're signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a computer running the same program — just look for them on your list of contacts, and click "Voice Call" or "Video Call." Call recipients need to be online with the app launched, so it's best to set up a time to talk in advance.
The program uses your computer's built-in speakers and microphone, if it has them. If your computer lacks a microphone, or if you want to improve the voice and sound quality, you can buy an operator-type headset for around $20. If both of you have webcams, you can see each other while you chat. (If your laptop doesn't already have one, a basic webcam costs about $20.) You can even show off the perfect piazza view out your hotel-room window. If you have a good Internet signal, the sound quality is generally at least as good as a standard phone connection (although video can be choppy).
Many Internet calling programs also work for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. This service is not free, but the rates are very reasonable (generally a few cents per minute). To make phone calls, you have to buy credit. Then just click on "Call" and punch the number in the keypad. I use Skype both in the US and in Europe to make cheap phone calls. When I'm at home, I can sit at my computer and use Skype to call phone numbers all over Europe to reserve hotels for my whole trip, quickly and affordably. And when I'm in Europe, I can get online and make calls to phone numbers in the US — or call ahead to confirm tomorrow's hotel in Europe — for pennies a minute. With Skype, you can also buy an "Online Number" in your home country that links to your computer wherever you are traveling. Your grandma makes a "local phone call" in Phoenix, and you "pick up" on your laptop in Barcelona. Google Talk has a similar feature, called Google Voice. This and other features are explained on each company's website; while they have to be set up online, they are fairly user-friendly.
Most providers also have apps that let you use the service on a mobile device (such as a smartphone, a tablet computer, or most portable media players with Wi-Fi access). For example, if you have the Skype app on your smartphone, you can get online at a café or any Wi-Fi hotspot to make calls. Fring allows you to use other VoIP providers — including Google Talk — on your smartphone. You can make Internet calls even if you're traveling without your own mobile device: Many European Internet cafés already have Skype, as well as microphones and webcams, built into their machines — just log on and chat away.
Internet calling does have its negatives. You're tethered to one spot while you talk. And in order for it to work, you need a very strong Internet connection. If your hotel's Wi-Fi signal is weak or spotty, these programs can be frustrating to use: The video freezes, the sound cuts out intermittently, or the person on the other end can't hear you.
Even if you're not using Internet calling, it's worth knowing about because of its increasing popularity in Europe. It's only a matter of time before a new European friend who wants to keep in touch asks you, "Are you on Skype?"